“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”
In a letter to his daughter “Scottie”, writer of American classic ‘The Great Gatsby’, F Scott Fitzgerald offered this curious insight. Though the letter was undated, what is clear from both his own accounts, and those of him from the time, is he did not see himself as the literary great the world does today.
This could have been in part due to the roller-coaster ride his works afforded him; his first novel, ‘This Side of Paradise’ garnered critical acclaim and catapulted him to success, but later works like ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Tender is the Night’ were not given the same reception until years after his death. And so, at some point in the midst of this ride, so F Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Scottie.
One could argue that he was aware of his literary skill, as in what could be an oblique allusion to himself, he uses positive language to describe his writing, but what about the uncertainty that follows? Having already reached some degree of success, to condemn oneself to a lifetime of fatiguing muscles (for he was, after all, a writer, and spent much of his life writing), never quite sure if the effort is being perceived, let alone appreciated or understood, highlights a self-doubt and a dangerous side of writing that ought to be more often considered. For a ‘good’ writer to be so plagued, what hope is there for the rest of us?
One answer, of course, lies in the ever more accessible and convenient use of technology to make meaning understood. Daily interaction has never been so instant, and emoticons mean conveying tone has never been easier. Reaching out to a friend with something witty but not sure they’ll read it that way? Instant messaging applications like WhatsApp have a plethora of emojis to choose from to help people read messages as you intended. Just add a 😉 or a 🙂 . Others, like Viber, go one step further with the incorporation of stickers into their applications, and let’s not forget about the rise of the GIF. But to what end?
It could be argued that comparing the daily, written communication methods we use today to that from one of the most renowned 20th Century writers in American history is unfair. But it is also the time of his writing that warrants the comparison. Take the quote we started with. As aforementioned, it was a nugget included in a hand written letter to his daughter. If, whilst writing, he decided to change the phrase to “All writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” he would have had to strike through ‘good’ . And if he had changed his mind a few more times, he would have had to put lines through a few more words. And if he had been a perfectionist, which biographical accounts suggest he was, he may well have decided to rewrite the entire letter as a result. This, in a time where letter writing was a form of daily communication.
In this day and age though, people communicate differently. The written word today more often takes the form of emails and instant messages than letters, personal handwritten ones even less so. As a result, with keyboards used more often than pen and paper, there’s no denying the hours, or trees, saved. But does increased convenience equate to a decreased writing effort? Here, one could argue, the answer is yes and no – it is the medium that dictates which.
The former can most definitely be seen when it comes to personal communication, and instant messaging in particular. As well as the use of emojis as a replacement for carefully constructed conversation, WhatsApp has recently also created a ‘delete’ feature which enables users to remove messages, or ‘un-send’ them, to other users. It seems some were not content with the use of the backspace key enabling an instant redraft, or perhaps WhatsApp itself noticed a gap in the communication market. Whatever the case may be, it means that putting less effort into personal interaction has never been easier.
Emails are a trickier business. Paradoxically, due to the rise in daily emoticon use, the inability to use them in more formal aspects of written communication means it has seemingly become harder to write a good email. Want to make a direct point, but without seeming rude? Unless you’re part of an organisation where inclusion of the smiley has resulted in the evolution of formal email, it is your words that are going to have to convey appropriate tone, and do all the talking.
It is clear then the subject of technological impact on ‘good writing’ is a complex one. Great writers are discovered even today, so obviously modern day advances in communication, and any subsequent decrease in writing effort, haven’t been completely detrimental to the written word. But, though myself guilty, it is this poorer quality of our regular written interactions I can’t help mourning.
And so to conclude, thus my forays into letter writing. In a world where everything is instant, the time and effort required to write a letter feels like a luxurious act of defiance. It is that same effort that means whenever I sit down to write, on every occasion, and to every recipient, each word is thoughtfully considered before ink flows, as I hope to somehow revel in a richness of language and craft so unjustly condemned to a bygone era.